Apocalypse may yet spark the rebirth of civic morality


Erosion in the second half of the last century of any sense of civic morality is what brought us to this sorry pass, writes GARRET FitzGERALD

WHILE – UNDERSTANDABLY – we all blame individuals in government, in parts of the public service, in property development and in the banks for the collapse of our economy, no one so far seems to have reflected on just why there has been such a simultaneous collective collapse in public responsibility in all these areas. Surely there must be some common element in this simultaneous emergence of deep fissures in so many areas of our society?

A factor common to this whole range of failures seems to me to have been a striking absence of any sense of civic responsibility throughout our society. The civic morality that underlies the social cohesion of so many democratic societies seems to me to have been absent in Ireland in recent decades.

Protestants, and especially Anglicans, had a strong civic sense, a loyalty to what had been their state. Despite the disproportionate role accorded to them initially in the Senate of the new State, thereafter they opted out of playing a significant role in its governance.

As for the Catholic majority, a society under alien rule cannot be expected to develop a sense of civic responsibility. And a popular church, identifying with its flock, first in opposition to the dominance of a ruling minority of another faith, and then to aspects of an alien government, could not be expected to instil much respect for public authority.

One might have expected that all this would change with independence, and in one, (in retrospect perhaps unfortunate), respect, it did – when in 1922 the hierarchy denounced violent republican opposition to the new Irish Free State government.

But, having done what it conceived to be its duty in this respect, thereafter it sought to dominate the State by relying upon the strong personal faith of members of successive governments to secure its objectives. It succeeded – up to a point. But when, in 1929, the Catholic hierarchy challenged the non-denominational provisions of our constitution by attempting to persuade the government to limit the appointment of dispensary doctors to Roman Catholics, it was outwitted by WT Cosgrave, who, as I understand it, told them that while as a Catholic he would have to obey their edict, he would of course also have to resign as president of the Executive Council [ie taoiseach] in defence of our non-denominational Constitution, which would not permit such discrimination. The bishops promptly climbed down!

Again they were blocked by de Valera in 1937 when, in drawing up his new Constitution, he refused to make Ireland a Catholic state. This underlying stand-off between church and State – the subtleties of which are little understood by the present generation – seems to have inhibited the Irish Catholic Church from advocating civic responsibility or from addressing issues of civic morality. Instead, all its energies were concentrated on aspects of sexual morality – an area where, (as a recent Irish Times poll showed), it has since lost credibility not only with the younger generation but with the older one as well.

The consequences of all this have been that a society whose education has been almost exclusively in the hands of the Catholic Church was left with virtually no training in civic morality or civic responsibility. This has been particularly noticeable in the failure of the church to preach about the evils of tax evasion for the additional taxes that have to be imposed to offset this shortfall.

But why has this defect become fatal to our economy only in quite recent times?

The problem was postponed, I believe, by the remarkably unselfish patriotism of our two sets of national revolutionaries, who, after the post-independence civil war, challenged each other for power through the democratic system.

Some of these revolutionary leaders remained in politics for 43 years thereafter – one indeed for 47 years following independence – disagreeing about many things, but all deeply committed to personal integrity in public life.

Even though from the 1930s onwards, tolerant of political appointments within the very narrow range of areas in respect of which the first government had not imposed a meritocratic appointments system, they got rid of financial corruption in local government, guarded against its emergence within national government, and lived frugally on their £1,500 salary, reduced by de Valera to £1,000 a year, (about €70,000 in today’s terms), with, I believe, no expense allowances.

In the 1970s, the surviving Fianna Fáil ex-ministers were horrified at the prospect of the emergence of a very different kind of Fianna Fáil. It was only with great difficulty that Frank Aiken, because of his concerns for the party and the country, was persuaded to stand again for election in 1973. Later, President de Valera confided his deep fears for the country to a minister in whose integrity he had confidence. And when he was dying, Seán MacEntee asked to see me to confide his deep concern for the future of the State because of what had happened to his party, Fianna Fáil. The truth is that because of the widespread lack of a tradition of civic responsibility or a sense of civic morality, for which I fear the Catholic Church must bear some of the blame, the disappearance of the revolutionary generation from government in the 1960s removed the only barrier to the spread to politics of the socially inadequate value system that we, as a people, had inherited from our colonial past.

Unhappily, that value system undervalued integrity in public life, to such a degree that it has seen tax evasion by a minister as grounds for repeatedly re-electing him to parliament.

There can be little doubt that a decline in standards has been at least partly – perhaps even largely – responsible for the collapse of our financial system and of our economy.

I do not think that this collapse could have occurred on such a dramatic scale during the first half of our State’s existence. Certainly many mistakes were made by governments during that period, but because our political system then upheld high standards, I do not think it would have permitted the simultaneous collapse of so many aspects of our economic system. However, the disaster we are currently experiencing may have belatedly started to re-moralise our society – if we are to judge by the recent Irish Times poll which showed the emergence of huge public concern for integrity – a virtue that in recent decades had become grossly undervalued by our electorate.

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